Wednesday, December 25, 2002

A chronicle of a teenage impostor operating in the 1960s, “Catch Me if You Can” peaks early, with a cleverly illustrated main-title sequence that is reinforced by a sprightly John Williams theme. The film’s source material is a ghostwritten autobiography written in the early 1980s, long after the subject, Frank W. Abagnale Jr., had served prison sentences in Europe and the United States, gone straight and become a government consultant specializing in the detection of forgers.
As a precocious young felon, he financed most of his dodgy activities by forging checks and documents, notably the starter set that permitted him to masquerade for a couple of years as a Pan American Airways co-pilot with authentic IDs from both the airline and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson does have a few amusing ideas in the early going. Leonardo DiCaprio is introduced as Frank while appearing on the vintage TV game show “To Tell the Truth.” At a new high school in suburban New York, he poses as a substitute teacher in a French class for a week; his whirlwind tenure ends when the authentic teacher returns from sick leave.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for slack to accumulate in Steven Spielberg’s leisurely, hit-and-miss approach to the nostalgic tale of the crime wave of Frank Abagnale.
The director has reason to identify with the character in a couple of respects. They’re about the same age, and Mr. Spielberg sustained a fleeting hoax of his own as a teenager by hanging around the Universal lot for a few months, trusting that he would be mistaken for a junior executive or a big shot’s son. Frank’s fugitive condition is ascribed to a broken home, and Mr. Spielberg has made no secret of his own emotional turmoil when his parents became estranged during his teens.
If anything, this association nudges the plot away from its amusing elements and straight toward mawkish pitfalls, which bottom out during one bewildering episode when Frank pays a melancholy Christmas visit to his mother (played by Nathalie Baye), by then remarried. Shivering in a snowfall, Mr. DiCaprio stares through the living room window at a little girl who may or may not be his half-sister. Because Nathalie Baye looks decisively beyond childbearing years from the moment we meet her, this girlish apparition remains closer to a Christmas miracle or hallucination than anyone’s actual child. She provokes the question, “Where did she come from?”
Mr. Nathanson also proves so absent-minded or perhaps modishly evasive that he forgets to complete the appearance on “To Tell the Truth” as a framing flashback for the entire movie. On the contrary, the script is soon inside a competing flashback, and the writer never bothers to sort out chronic structural problems.
I don’t think Steven Spielberg has ever been associated with a more negligible movie. The rambling smugness and mediocrity that creep into “Catch Me” are easier to associate with no-name directors.
A laborious note of facetiousness persists like a low-grade headache after Tom Hanks enters in the role of a slow-witted but dedicated FBI agent named Sean Hanratty, who concentrates on forgery cases. After the slippery lad is arrested, Hanratty becomes Frank’s rescuer and mentor. This development is welcome, but one pays for it with redundant episodes in which Frank eludes and taunts an easily hoodwinked Hanratty.
The filmmakers seem determined to subject the FBI of the period to such conventional ridicule that we’ll be certain to get the point: They scorn the institution. However, Hanratty also needs to be the most sympathetic and honest character in the story, the guy who ultimately persuades Frank to turn over a new leaf. So the ridicule of the institution that employs him is always beside the point even more so if your wayward protagonist is destined to end up as an employee of the same institution. Evidently, these are the only two men on the payroll permitted to transcend clownishness.
Marginally, “Catch Me” is a more flattering vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio than Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” Yet it must seem a backward step of some kind to be playing a teenager again. Frank is essentially the kind of role that is supposed to unveil a promising newcomer. Five years after “Titanic,” Mr. DiCaprio still awaits that next pivotal role.
“Catch Me if You Can”
PG-13 (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and sordid illustrative details)
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank W. Abagnale and Stan Redding.
140 minutes

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